|Andzrej Stankiewicz provides this caption:|
Józio, son of Artur, Jurek, son of Stach, my aunt Irena, Janek, younger brother of Jurek, and Seweryn Jan, my father.
I received an email on October 13, 2021, the day after my birthday, that prompted me to spend today, a beautiful autumn Sunday in November, reading, again, about Polish-Jewish relations.
It's as if all the uncried tears are pouring out now. I need to keep wiping my face so that I can see this computer screen.
Researching Polish-Jewish relations taught me many things. Inter alia, it taught me this: no matter how dark the world has gotten, in the midst of that darkness, there have been refulgent lights. Those lights often have disguised themselves, by necessity. Those lights have often been ignored, because the world would rather focus on cheap spectacles. Just because we do not see these lights does not mean that they are not there. Thus, despair is self-indulgent and a sin. As John wrote, "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."
Back in December, 2015, I wrote the following on this blog:
"Between fifteen and twenty years ago I was doing a massive amount of reading that would inform the book Bieganski. I read Polish history, Jewish history … I read about the Holocaust and I read about other atrocities including the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. I read memoirs, scholarly and newspaper articles and internet postings by average Joes … I was swimming in an ocean of words so vast that I could not see dry land.
In all that verbiage, I have forgotten plenty of things. Sometimes I stumble across a book, think, 'I should read this book,' and realize that I'd read it, reviewed it, and quoted it …
And then there is a fraction of the material I read. This fraction consists of material that I not only remember, but that I can almost quote verbatim …
One such unforgettable passage concerned a young Polish Jew named Jurek Leder. We know about Jurek Leder thanks to Mary Berg's Warsaw Ghetto diary. Below is the passage that mentions Leder.
'Jurek Leder, my close friend, who now works for the Jewish police, is also a passionate Polish patriot. "If only I could get out and join the partisans!" He says. "At least I could fight for Poland then. I love my country and even if a hundred anti-Semites try to convince me that I am not a Pole I'll prove it with my fists if not my words." Leder's father is a captain in the Polish army and is presently interned in Russia.'"
And that's all I knew about Jurek Leder. Just those words that Mary Berg quotes, above. I didn't know what he looked like, or how old he was, or anything. But those words turned Jurek Leder, to me, into a breathing, animate, flesh-and-blood human being, stepping out from the ranks of black-and-white, nameless victims, shuffling through my brain on their endless march to oblivion.
There's much more in that initial post about Mary Berg; please see that blog post here.
Five years later, I had reason to post about Jurek Leder again in July, 2020. Andrzej Stankiewicz had sent me an email seven months before. Mr. Stankiewicz had happened upon my blog post about Jurek Leder and he wrote to inform me that he is related to Jurek Leder! He shared with me a photo of Jurek Leder that I posted on the blog, here. Mr. Stankiewicz provided me with many interesting details about his family, about those who perished in the Holocaust, and those who survived. He also informed me that Jurek Leder was a recipient of the Virtuti Militari "for heroism and courage in the face of the enemy at war." Mr. Stankiewicz could not tell me much more because he didn't know much more. War swallows up so many biographical details. In any case, that blog post is full of the then-available details; please see it here.
Now, to October 13, 2021. I received a new email from Andrzej Stankiewiecz with some exciting news. He had found a document that provides many more details about Jurek Leder.
"I want to let you know that thanks to Prof. Engelking from the Polish Center for Holocaust Research an important document surfaced concerning Jurek and his family. This is a 1996 publication based on the memoirs of Mrs. Zofia Debicka, a 'Righteous among Nations', who was hiding Jewish families in Warsaw and among them Jurek Leder, his mother Berta and his younger brother Janek."
This emergence of a fuller picture of Jurek Leder through the chaos of war and the mists of time and forgetting is very moving to me. Maybe this is why I am moved to tears. I had thought this human life, like so many other human lives, erased. Jurek Leder moved me with just the few phrases Mary Berg recorded about him in her sadly neglected Warsaw Ghetto diary. I knew he was a special person, but I could not know how or why. Thanks to the new document Mr. Stankiewicz sent to me, I would soon have a fuller picture.
I can read Polish fairly well but it requires patience and concentration and I didn't want to wait till I had some hours to devote to the task, so I impatiently forwarded the document to Lukasz Klimek, a great friend of this blog. I asked only for a summary but Lukasz kindly provided me with a word by word translation into English.
Reading this document opened a window to the past and allowed me to gain a fuller picture of the man whose plight and whose patriotism touched me so deeply. The account is very worth reading and I will be happy to email the Polish-language PDF to anyone who requests it. The account offers personal glimpses into Jurek Leder from someone who knew him.
Jurek was, the document states, a 19-year-old graphic designer. He made signs at railway stations, such as: "Exit," "To the buffet," and "For men." He had the right to wear a railroad cap, which gave him a certain sense of security. He was "brave, valiant, resourceful, saved many people from death already in the ghetto with his courage, bravado and resourcefulness. Jurek simply fulfilled himself in the face of danger."
Mrs. Zofia Debicka describes Jurek helping to find safe housing for a Jewish toddler whose parents died in the Holocaust. Jurek contributed so much to the care for this toddler that a ring procured to sell for provisions for the baby turned out not to be needed. The toddler's rescuers, who included an Englishman and Mrs. Debicka, put the ring into storage for the child's future.
Jurek's mother was a timid soul, terrified of discovery. Mrs. Debicka describes Jurek's mother deciding
"that the safest thing for her boys would be to hide in some provincial corner, and she moved out from Warsaw. Jurek could not bear the atmosphere of permanently closed shutters, sneaking out of the house after dark, and he returned to Warsaw. He quickly came to an understanding with my 'English son' [an English officer living in Poland and helping Mrs. Debicka] and joined the sabotage unit. By disarming the Germans (with his bare hands) several times and thus supplying the unit with weapons, and by organizing an action in an extraordinary way, he soon became the brain of the unit and the head of the liquidation cell.
When Jurek's mother found out about Jurek joining the organization, she was devastated. While sobbing she said to him that he is willingly taking on additional risks. But when we were left alone, she said: 'You know, maybe it was a good thing with this organization - Jurek will die, because he will die for sure, but in battle, not a humiliating death.'
And so it happened. Jurek was killed in the fall of 1943 on Plac Zbawiciela [Savior Square] in an action against one of the executioners of the ghetto. His corpse, abandoned in the street, was taken by the blue police. At night, the boys from his unit stole the body and buried it in the cemetery in Bródno. After the war, with difficulty, together with his father, who came with the Polish People's Army, we found a small grave near the cemetery wall. We put up a sign with the real name "Jerzy Leder. Hero".
I can only hope that anyone reading this blog might be tearing up right now just as I am. Jurek, thank you for letting us get to know a bit more about you. Through you, may we be reminded that victims of atrocity are all people, just like us, unique, with names, families, loves, life stories. And some of them, like you, are heroes.